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The home of postgraduate study in contemporary art at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.
“Through new work I gain knowledge” – an interview with Robyn Backen

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Robyn Backen, Connecting You, 2011. Photo: Ian Hobbs

Tell us a little bit about how you came to your current role…

My story is a circular one: I was an undergraduate student at SCA and while I took classes in performance and sculpture, my major was actually in jewellery. This gave me a broad understanding of thinking about and making objects. After I graduated I spent four years undertaking postgraduate study at a series of academies in Austria, Germany and Holland. After that, in the 90s, I decided to undertake a Masters, although must admit I was pretty resistant to the idea of being a student again.

I worked as a casual lecturer for many years at UWS, ANU, Macquarie University, COFA and SCA. Then in 2007 I was invited to take up a part-time role as Master of Studio Art (MSA) Coordinator, with a charter to reshape and develop the program. This has been a great challenge and there have been some really extraordinary pay-offs. One of the main attractions of the job for me was that MSA students can major in any of the 8 studio areas at SCA. This enables me to explore the breadth of my skills and knowledge while still allowing the space to grow new skills and new knowledge alongside the students.

What exactly is the role of MSA coordinator?

I work closely with students over one year full-time or 2 years part-time to develop work for the end of year exhibition. I have supervisory responsibility for the students as they progress through the course, but there is also a highly experienced team of exhibiting artists and academics working closely with the students as well. From the very first week we engage the students in exercises that prepare them for supportive critical feedback and open group discussion, so that we build a very close cohort of critically engaged peers. Many of the students have not studied for many years, or haven’t studied at SCA particularly, so it is priority for me that we integrate them into the community as well as we can.

The delight of working in the MSA is that students are very eager and excited to be studying. They are extremely hard working and by the end of the course have a very sophisticated knowledge of the artists and theoreticians working in contemporary art in Australia and internationally.

Given that you are working here part-time and have quite an extensive practice of your own, how do you balance your projects, and the requirements of teaching and being part of an academic community? Would you prefer just to be focused on your practice?

The balance question is always the question! On the days that I’m not at the university it can feel like I am fighting back emails and meeting requests. But the best thing about it is that it keeps the juices flowing and you are always discovering new approaches. Just existing in my studio is not enough for me. I need other stimuli and contact with a bigger world. 

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Robyn Backen, Whisper Pitch, 2012. Photo: Ian Hobbs

SCA gives me access to a community of great artists who are friends and peers, as well as an amazing workshop and an excellent library. It also allows me the opportunity to continue making experimental work alongside commissioned projects, such as Whisper Pitch, which was installed at Performance Space, Carriageworks, in 2012.

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Robyn Backen, Whisper Pitch, 2012. Photo: Ian Hobbs

Let’s talk a bit about your practice – where do you get started? And how are the projects realised? You must have to work with huge number of people…

Everything starts in my studio, which is a place to develop ideas, because most of my works are built on site, not in the studio. I spend a lot of time there on my own and I really need quiet. Once a week I have an assistant that comes and works with me to keep website up to date and generally help keep on top of the administration.

I have 3 main avenues that I follow in my practice. 

Firstly I work alone to make work that needs limited technical support, such as video, sound work, drawing or an object. 

Secondly I make works that I invite others to participate in with me, such as Last Word, part of a 3 year Siteworks residency at Bundanon. The project involved a performance work on the river which I worked on with The PLANK, a special group of people with whom I share and discuss my evolving practice. Over many years each member has given a unique voice and often an invisible presence in my work and I see the group as a team of advisors or collaborators. This project was an opportunity to bring them all together.

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Robyn Backen, Last Word, 2012. Photo: Ian Hobbs

Finally, I often work on very large and public commissions that, due to their complexity, require teams of collaborators in order to be realised. These projects can take up to 5 years to complete. One example is Delicate Balance, at Ballast Point. Also for the past year I have been working on a large commission in the Brisbane CBD, which is now in the final stages. The team for this project consists of a project manager, architect, computer programmer, engineer, LED lighting specialist, construction team and assorted others. So it is a complex process!

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Robyn Backen, Delicate Balance, 2009. Photo: Ian Hobbs

What are you currently working on?

In late 2011 I was awarded the Australia Council Fellowship for 2012-2014. Receiving the fellowship funding is a rare opportunity that has given me the financial support to spend time researching, travelling and then producing a number of significant artworks. As part of the fellowship I have already travelled to India, and I’ll go back in January/February 2014 to work on a video-performance work in Bijapur, the second largest whispering space in the world. After India I’ll go to the USA to undertake a series of workshops, lectures and residencies.

I’m also working on a number of other projects: the commission for Brisbane, Night Watch, which I mentioned earlier, a series of drawings, another commission, which is in the early stages of discussion, and then an SCA project called Camouflage

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Robyn Backen, Night Watch, (in progress) 2013. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Do you understand your practice as ‘research’?

It’s definitely a 21st century thing. Twenty years ago it would not have been common for artists to use that language. But since masters programs emerged as a significant part of an art school curriculum, the way we think about practice has evolved or shifted. It has become the norm that artists can write about their own work and the work of others, and analyse and contextualise the thinking and making processes in a very formal way. There is now a well-documented idea that the research undertaken by artists is research through art and as art.

For example, the goal of my fellowship project is to further develop my research into telephonic communication systems, and produce a series of artworks that generate light and sound messages to be received by an audience. The intention of this research is to move towards a deeper understanding of how our bodies experience the vibration and resonance of invisible waves, and this requires significant resources for research, travel, purchase of equipment and development of new work. The new work means that I gain knowledge, through the process of preparing for and making the work, and the audience and wider community gains knowledge through the experience of the work.  

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Robyn Backen, Night Watch, (in progress)2013. Image courtesy of the artist

And finally, which artists are doing interesting things right now? Who are you looking at?

I am always waiting to see what Francis Alys is about to do next. I really love the way he moves through so many possible ways of making art. It is about thinking. That is what inspires me in the end – a really great idea.

Links:

Robyn’s University profile

Robyn’s website

Master of Studio Art information

— 12 months ago
#staff profile  #studio practice as research  #robyn backen  #MSA